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On the Market: Five Great Key Lights for Five Different Budgets

Tanner Shinnick

Today we’re going to take a look at five favorite key lights, with accompanying diffusion materials, for every budget range.

The key light may be the most important light for a cinematographer to master. With a variety of fixtures on the market today, you can find the perfect key light for virtually any budget range.


No Budget: The Sun with Diffusion from 5-in-1 Reflector

We’ve heard it before, but the sun is the brightest and most readily available light source we have access to. Plus, it’s free.

Many times I’ve been on run-and-gun shoots and have needed to diffuse the sunlight to make it more pleasing on the talent’s face. Usually for those scenarios, I have a 5-in-1 Reflector that I purchased from Amazon in my kit. In a pinch, I pull out the circular diffusion and it makes for a great-looking and pleasing key light.


Ultra-Low Budget: Dracast 1000

A greatly affordable, yet powerful, key light is the Dracast 1000 series of lights. These bi-color fixtures are super light, portable, and all-around easy to work with. I’ve had one in my kit for over four years now and constantly use it as a key light to illuminate my scene. They’re also just powerful enough to work with a small soft box to give your scene a nice even cast of light, which makes them great for interviews.


Low Budget: Aperture 300D or Astra 6x

The Aperture 300D and Astra 6x are both surprisingly bright and efficient LED light fixtures, and sit around the same budget range. These fixtures have plenty of light output to push through thicker diffusion materials, while still being able to gather a great exposure.

One of my personal favorite things to do to diffuse and soften up these lights is to bounce them into a reflective material — like an ultrabounce — hence increasing the source size of the light.

Also, the Aperture 300D’s softbox option is great since it also provides a soft, even light.


Mid-Budget: Gemini 1×1

Personally, one of the most exciting announcements from NAB this year was the Gemini 1×1. As a filmmaker who travels frequently, I’m always looking for a powerful light that travels well and doesn’t take up too much space in my baggage. The Gemini 1×1 seems to be the perfect companion for just that reason.

Although a beautifully soft light on its own, I’ve always found that putting the light through a 4×4 frame of 250 diffusion always helps to soften the appearance on the talent’s face.


Full Budget: ARRI SkyPanel S60

My absolute favorite fixture for a key light is the ARRI Skypanel S-60. It has an amazingly bright output, with a wide range of features. Although heavy and oftentimes bulky, it’s always worth the extra effort. It’s great for shooting a documentary or interview piece. Being able to put that light through a 6×6 frame of LT Grid will give you the most beautiful key light. For that reason, it’s my personal preferred method to key light a scene that requires a beautifully soft light source.

Overall, there are light fixtures out there to meet any budgetary need. So, no matter if you’re working on a shoestring budget or if budget isn’t an issue, finding the perfect key light is still at your disposal.


Cover image via ARRI.

Want to learn more about lighting techniques and gear? Check out these articles:

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